Jeremy Jordan is a man of the people. Where some actors feel inaccessible to the audience, he never does. There’s no distance between the artist and the man. It’s like he stepped from beside you and someone caught him in the light and he opened his mouth and just, in that moment, realized he had one of the greatest male voices that exists in the American theatre.
That’s basically what happens in the beginning of his new cabaret show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. The music ramps up and the announcer calls his name, but he doesn’t take the stage from the little alcove in the back corner. The music softens and a tiny light flickers on over by the bar and there he stands in a zip-up cardigan and t-shirt. He walks through us, making meaningful, connective eye contact, telling us all hey and good to see you and thanks for coming. We may be blurred into anonymity when he takes the stage, but right now, he sees us all and he knows we’re all here for him. And, knowing that we’re there to support him, he capitalizes on that to unpack some emotional and some literal baggage.
Jordan unzips a carry-on bag and begins to remove some objects that represent painful memories from his past, things he has been holding on to for many years, but now wants to jettison to make room for his daughter. He speaks to his infant daughter throughout the show, explaining the objects and singing songs related to them. But where this metaphor would suffice to sustain a 70-minute show from another performer, Jordan immediately acknowledges that it’s easier to talk about his past trauma through the clunky theatricality of a suitcase and an out-of-sight baby. He’s not the kind of person who could make a show like that work without calling attention to it. There’s no suspension of disbelief with Jeremy Jordan, there’s only actual belief.
This kind of real-talk pervades the show. He pulls out a Broadway.com Audience Choice Award and tells us he has two more. “Winning this feels like being Prom King,” he says. Though he was honored to receive all three, an Audience Choice Award is only a popularity contest, it’s not based on actual merit or skill. “If you’re popular, it doesn’t mean you’re actually good at anything,” he says. It’s a frank piece of honesty where other actors would call themselves “award-winning” and leave it at that. Jordan wants more than online votes, he wants to be respected for his craft.
He dives deep into himself, too. He tells us to listen to the lyrics of “Broadway, Here I Come!” the Joe Iconis song he debuted on Smash and, though on the surface it’s about a man jumping off a building, Jordan manages to make it about the leap he takes every time he steps on a stage. He covers an Alison Krauss song and talks about his stepmother who brought stability to his life after his parents’ divorce, and about a tragic accident that took that peace away. He tells us about his first girlfriend, his first kiss, and his first heartbreak through the mouthpiece of a Jimmy Eat World song.
It’s all enjoyable and he’s captivating and the section about his stepmother had me in tears, but then I started to see Jeremy Jordan differently. He pulls out a box of nails from the suitcase and tells us about his life with his mother and her drug-addicted husband, the knock-down-drag-out arguments they had, how she would call his name for help and he would ignore her, disassociating from reality and thinking about when he could get away and have a better life. Here, he sings the song that put him on the map, “Santa Fe” from Newsies, and a whole chamber unlocked for Jeremy Jordan in my brain and my heart.
At the center of this frivolous musical from seven years ago was an actor taking his darkest memories and channeling them into the character. The subtext of his past is all over Jack Kelly. He could easily have told us that at the time, to show what a performance he was giving, but Jordan didn’t. He did his job quietly and he kept to himself, letting the Disney juggernaut do its thing. But it was important for him to be as connected to Jack as possible, and the only way he could do this was to let maybe the worst moments of his childhood back into his body. And he does it again, now. It suddenly gave me a tremendous amount of admiration for this man, someone I’ve always thought was very talented and, as I said, human, but this was something else. There are more layers to Jeremy Jordan than any of us know.
“What do you do when you want to grow, but you don’t want to grow?” he asks as he realizes he needs to hold on to these memories. He can’t give them away because they make up who he is. He needs the past to keep him looking towards the future. He ends the show with an original song, “Flesh and Bone”, that he wrote for his daughter. This postmodern Billy Bigelow tears down the walls of both 54 Below and his vocal ability with a raw, cathartic moment where we all soar with him. He’s had us in his pocket from the beginning and even when he leaves the stage, we’re still with him.
Shows like this are why 54 Below is an invaluable addition to the New York theatre scene. When Jeremy Jordan is mere feet from you, speaking and singing as himself, it’s not just cabaret and it’s not just theatre. It’s more personal, more individualized – for both the artist and the audience. When someone speaks from the heart, as Jordan does, and uses the physical space and the trappings of a cabaret show to do so, it’s a powerful mode of communication and it doesn’t happen in such a singular way anywhere else but here.